This post was written by Jeff O’Brien for Simply Residential Property Management Magazine.
Can you be held liable when a tenant or guest is injured on your property? More importantly, what steps can landlords take to minimize liability for these injuries.
Common Law Duty – General Rule; Exceptions
For a common law negligence claim, one must prove (1) the existence of a duty of care, (2) breach of that duty, (3) proximate causation, and (4) damages. White v. Many Rivers West Limited Partnership, 797 N.W.2d 739, 743 (Minn. Ct. App. 2011). When it comes to the liability of landlords for tenant injuries, however, Minnesota courts have long held that landlords generally owe no duty of care to their tenants and are not liable for damages caused by defective conditions on the leased premises. White, 797 N.W.2d at 744 (Minn. Ct. App. 2011), citing Oakland v. Stenlund, 420 N.W. 2d 248, 250 (Minn. Ct. App. 1988).
Several exceptions to the general rule exist. A duty of care may exist if the landlord: (1) has willingly undertaken to repair the premises and done so negligently; (2) retains control of certain areas of the premises; or (3) is aware of a hidden hazard on the premises by the tenant is not. White, 797 N.W.2d at 744, citing Gradjelick v. Hance, 646 N.W.2d 225, 231 (Minn. 2002).
Negligent Repair Exception
If a landlord assumes the duty to correct a defect on part of the property when not required by the lease to do so, “the landlord must bear the burden of failure to make a good job of it.” White, 797 N.W.2d at 744, quoting Canada by Landy v. McCarthy, 567 N.W.2d 496, 504 (Minn. 1997). The duty of reasonable care to make a good job of repairs, however, requires only that “the necessary repairs [be performed] in a reasonable way.” Id. The landlord’s duty is not to make improvements to the safety of the thing repaired exceeding the safety standards otherwise imposed by law.
Retention of Control Exception
A second exception to the general rule occurs if the landlord retains possession of an apartment’s common areas, like stairs, halls, elevators or yard space. White, 797 N.W.2d at 745, citing Rosmo v. Amherst Holding Co., 50 N.W.2d 698, 701 (1951). Note that a landlord performing routine maintenance on windows in a unit or addressing a tenant’s complaints related to the windows does not fall under this exception. White at 745.
Hidden Hazard Exception
If a property contains hidden dangers that the landlord knows about and the tenant does not, the landlord must warn tenants about that danger, but the landlord has no corresponding duty to warn a tenant’s guests. White, 797 N.W.2d at 745, citing Oakland, 420 N.W.2d at 251. And no warning is required even for the tenant when the tenant knows of the dangerous condition or the condition is so open and obvious that the tenant can be expected or have discovered it on her own. White, 797 N.W.2d at 745, citing Johnson v. O’Brien, 105 N.W.2d 244, 247 (1960).
Contractual Duty of Care – General Rule
A landlord may contractually create a duty to maintain the leased premises. White, 797 N.W.2d at 746, citing Dyrdal v. Golden Nuggets, Inc., 672 N.W.2d 578, 587 (Minn. Ct. App. 2004), affirmed, 689 N.W.2d 779 (Minn. 2004). When a lease contains no stipulation on the subject of maintenance, generally “there is no implied covenant on the part of the landlord…that the premises are or will prove to be suitable for the tenant’s use.” White, 797 N.W.2d at 746, quoting Krueger v. Farrant, 13 N.W. 158, 159 (1882). But if a landlord expressly agrees to maintain a part of the lessee’s premises, he then creates a duty to exercise reasonable care. White, 797 N.W.2d at 746, quoting Drager, 495 N.W.2d at 885. However, a landlord’s promise to repair parts of premises for safety purposes is not an express agreement to repair to a certain standard. White, 797 N.W.2d at 746, citing Normandin v. Freidson, 233 N.W. 14, 15 (1930).
Jeffrey C. O’Brien is an attorney with the Minneapolis based law firm of Lommen Abdo, P.A. and a MSBA Board Certified Real Property Specialist. He can be reached at (612) 336-9317 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.